This sermon was preached at Green Street United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC on Sunday, March 22, 2020. The text was John 9:1-41.
Dr. Anna Carter Florence, a preaching professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, says that this story in John chapter 9 “is a story about time: before and after, then and now.” This story evokes the words of that favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace”: “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”
In this moment in history, we are living in a story about time: before and after, then and now.
Once we gathered in this space to worship together, but now we connect virtually. Once we lived without fear of a handshake or hug, but now we maintain a 6-foot radius around our person anytime we leave the house. Once we took for granted well-stocked grocery store shelves, but now we count our rolls of toilet paper.
I don’t know about you, but things feel very different to me this Sunday than they did last Sunday. Last Sunday, we made the decision to cancel in-person worship out of what felt like an abundance of caution. I honestly thought we might do this livestream thing for 2 weeks and then get back to our regularly scheduled lives.
As things have become more serious and less certain, I have struggled to know what to say to you all this morning. I had a sketch of a very different sermon in what one of my friends has taken to ominously calling “The Before Times.” But the events of the last week or so have called me back to this text and to revisit what I thought was important for us to hear.
As I re-read this text against the background noise of a global pandemic, three things, stood out to me: blame, denial, and revelation. All three of these actions weave through the text and can speak to us in this moment we find ourselves in.
The disciples asked, “Teacher, who sinned? Who is responsible for this man’s blindness? Did he commit sins that merited this punishment? If not his sins, is it the sins of his parents?”
Kate Bowler is a professor of American Christianity at Duke Divinity School. At what felt like the perfect moment in her life—a soaring career, a wonderful marriage, a beautiful new son—she was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer.
Kate has noticed that other people sometimes respond to her diagnosis by trying to find an explanation for her illness. They ask her whether something in her diet might have caused the cancer, whether she had any chemical exposures, or if she had a genetic predisposition.
These people don’t realize it, but as they speculate about the reason a young mom and budding academic might suddenly receive a terminal diagnosis, they are attempting to assign blame—to Kate, to the environment, to her family, to anything that can be pinned down and therefore avoided. But this fact-finding will not keep them safe, and it certainly is of no use to Kate at this point.
The disciples see a blind man and they want to know who is responsible. They want to be able to assign blame—perhaps in the hope that they and their descendants might avoid this pitiable fate.
Once, the disciples asked, “Who is responsible? This man, or his parents?” But now, we ask, “Who is responsible? The Chinese or the Europeans? Boomers or millennials? The current administration or…the current administration?”
We hear echoes of blame in the way some of our leaders continue to refer to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus,” brushing aside questions of whether that phrase is racist, forgetting that in the early days of HIV/AIDS, some called it GRID—Gay-Related Immune Deficiency—thinking that straight people were not only safe but somehow morally exempt.
We are ready to place responsibility on churches who insist on still holding in-person worship services, on spring breakers still crowding the beaches of Florida, on an economic system crumbling under the weight of closed businesses and halted commerce.
But efforts to explain the blind man’s lack of sight did not help him see.
And while yes, once this is over we need clarity on where things broke down so we can avoid the same pitfalls in the future, blaming one another for the spread of the coronavirus does not help those now infected with COVID-19.
I debated whether you read you all this entire passage because it is very, very, very long. But I decided to go ahead with the whole thing, because that’s part of the point. This passage isn’t long because it takes Jesus a long time to make the blind man see; it’s long because everyone else takes up a lot of time ignoring what they are told about what happened and continuing to seek explanations that they are more ready to believe.
Anything about that hit home for us here today?
Jesus heals this man, but when the townspeople see him, they aren’t sure it’s the same person—perhaps because his identity had been so tied up with his blindness that they could not recognize him apart from it. They argue with one another about whether it’s the same person they once knew, all while he insists, “Yes, it’s me!”
The Pharisees go to the man’s parents to confirm his identity; the parents send them back to their son. Again and again, the man repeats his story, with no effort to explain what he cannot explain: “I only know one thing: I was blind, and now I see.”
Still they pressure him for more information. I love how this translation renders the exact moment at which the man loses his composure and gets a little sassy: “Listen, I’ve already answered all these questions, and you don’t like my answers. Do you really need me to say it all over again?”
There has been a great deal of denial around the world about the seriousness of the coronavirus. There has been a great deal of confusion regarding whom to follow and whom to trust.
One name I want us all to try and remember in this pandemic is Dr. Li Wenliang. Back in December, Dr. Li was treating patients in Wuhan and sent a message to other medics warning them of a new virus that looked to him a lot like SARS. Dr. Li was pressured by Chinese police to stop spreading rumors, and his early warning was suppressed. As we now know all too well, his warnings were accurate, and in a deeply sad twist, Dr. Li himself died of COVID-19 earlier this year.
In this passage, there is a difference between being able to see and claiming to see. “Jesus replied, ‘If you were blind, you would be without sin. But because you claim you can see, your sin is ever present.’” The Pharisees, whose physical eyesight is not compromised, are unable to see the reality of the situation, not because they cannot, but because they are unwilling. Dr. Li saw this pandemic for what it was and what it could be, but the authorities did not, and their blindness cost many lives.
On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling, a black man, was shot and killed by two white police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The very next day, Philando Castile, a black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. These murders added fuel to the fire burning in the Black Lives Matter Movement.
On July 6, the day that Philando Castile was killed, author adrienne maree brown sent out a tweet that is as apropos for today as it was for that day in 2016. She wrote:
“things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” (repeat)
In the story of the man born blind, Jesus refuses to explain his blindness in terms of sin, saying, “He is blind so the deeds of God may be put on display.” This doesn’t mean “God made him blind so that God could show off”—rather, it means Jesus is trying to shift the focus from the man’s physical blindness to their spiritual blindness.
The revelation in John chapter 9 is not just that God has the power to bring sight to the blind—the revelation is also of the cynicism and hypocrisy of everyone else in the passage. This story reveals meanness in the worldviews and religious codes that have governed the lives of most everyone involved.
The more testing we do in this country, the higher the number of cases will climb; and public health experts warn that it may take weeks for our efforts at social distancing to pay off. So for a while, it will look like things are getting worse—but they’re just getting uncovered.
Cases of COVID-19 aren’t the only things being uncovered, of course. The ongoing pandemic is revealing inequities in our society that have always been there but which many have had the privilege to ignore. It’s revealing the way fear can lead us to hoard the things we think we need without a thought for the needs of others. It’s revealing abuses of power and privilege that are not new but seem more heinous in this moment of crisis.
“things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. we must hold each other tight[—while social distancing—]and continue to pull back the veil.”
It’s not easy to look on what is uncovered when what is uncovered is injustice, selfishness, greed, and uncertainty. But thankfully that is not all that is revealed. In our story from the Gospel of John, we see meanness and cynicism, but we also see the stubborn persistence of God’s presence and grace. Today, we see fear and selfishness and inequity, but we also see creativity and mercy and love. All these things exist in a tension that is at times unbearable, at times demanding, at times energizing.
Let’s not forget that the blind man’s sight came with the application of some mud and spit. What messy blessings await us in this time of trial, and how do we look for the new mercies being revealed without shying away from the terrors uncovered along the way?
I find myself thinking a lot of Julian of Norwich, an anchoress who lived in medieval England, who in the midst of the black plague experienced her own life-threatening illness in the midst of which she had visions that forever changed her understanding of God, of grace, of love. Julian’s book, the earliest existing English writing by a woman, is called Revelations of Divine Love. In it, she writes the following:
“[God] said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’; but [God] said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’” “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
There is before and after, then and now. But what’s next? Is it foolish to say “All shall be well,” or is it all that we can say in a moment like this?
In the ancient near east, a blind man made his living begging on the street. Having his sight restored was a blessing, but it also means a loss of income not unlike the loss of income so many people are experiencing right now. What is next for this man? What is next for us?
A week ago, an Irish priest named Richard Hendrick shared a poem called “Lockdown” reflecting on life in the time of coronavirus. It captures beautifully the tension of all that is being revealed, good and bad, ugly and beautiful. I’d like to close by reading this poem—we’ll make sure it’s posted on the church’s Facebook page so you can reference it later:
By Richard Hendrick
Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul.
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,
More will be revealed. Until then, we sing, and we say, “All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well.” Amen.